Xubuntu and I parted ways a long time ago. When I started using Ubuntu, I quickly orphaned my $3000 laptop in favor of a $300 secondhand machine, and Xubuntu became my weapon of choice. Over the years it became quite chunky though, and as a result I said goodbye, preferring to build them myself or pick a distro that was truly lightweight.
A few months ago I promised a fair look at Xubuntu 8.10, after reading a note by one of the developers insisting that the Intrepid release of Xubuntu would shed some pounds. I had my doubts at the time, but I promised to be fair. And so I’ll try.
My guinea pig this time was the VAIO desktop, shanghaied in its cleaned and rebuilt state to serve as test subject. The Xubuntu home pages don’t offer any specific system requirements, and the documentation guide for Xubuntu 6.06 LTS only says my computer “will most likely feel quite fast with Xubuntu.” At 800Mhz and 192Mb of memory, the VAIO is rather high-end for my household, so I’m hoping this is within the bracket of Xubuntu’s target. But unless I’ve overlooked a page somewhere, I have no way of telling.
Installation from the alternate CD went rather slowly — start to finish was probably an hour and a half — but that may be in part because I used a rewritable CD. A clean and fresh CDR might have been a little faster on the read for my particular optical drive. I’ll try that the next time I install.
Hardware detection went flawlessly, which I would expect from Ubuntu running on an out-of-date machine. Any more, it’s really only the cutting edge hardware that should give you any problems. Xubuntu found my network device, partitioned the drive, found the sound card, arranged the keyboard — all without any stress. A solid +1 for that.
Once in place, the desktop was quite attractive.
Say what you will about it, but Xubuntu looks good. Of course, it looks the same as Gnome Ubuntu, it’s just blue. But the background is nice, and the interface and window manager themes are pretty, so there’s a plus.
(And while aesthetic points are hardly worth noting, I have to say that I’ve always been a little disappointed that Xubuntu was so eager to abandon its XFCE-ness, and dupe a Gnome desktop. I understand that the ordinary Ubuntu-to-Xubuntu convert probably expects the top-and-bottom panel arrangement, but I also remember the early, early days of Xubuntu, and the fun of exploring the unusual desktop XFCE offered. A moot point though, since changing it back to the old shape takes only seconds.)
As you can see, I installed the Japanese desktop arrangement, which puts the overwhelming majority of the system interface into Japanese. That’s a bit of a necessity for me, since the machine is likely to end up in the hands of either (a) a Japanese user, or (b) a foreigner studying Japanese, or (c) a Japanese speaker studying English. There are a few menus and messages that don’t adhere to the translation demand though — most notably the Gnome-esque notification balloons, which still told me in English that there were updates awaiting my approval. After the updates, those improved.
Updating was a bit time-consuming, which I’m also willing to blame in part on hardware. One-hundred and thirty-eight packages needed to be downloaded from the main Japan repositories (I usually switch to the University of Toyama, which is scary-fast for me), and installation was a knuckle-grinding two-hours-plus to complete. Honestly, I didn’t know that much of Intrepid had been updated since the ISO came out three months ago.
For software, the same arrangement in Gnome Ubuntu appears to be the case in Xubuntu. Core utilities that aren’t native to KDE or integral to XFCE are what you get with Xubuntu — the update manager, for example, is the same as the Ubuntu version, but the settings manager, for example, are the XFCE versions.
Software selection is strong, which is what you should expect for something that uses Ubuntu as its base. The Gimp is on board, as are Abiword and Gnumeric. Look for GPicView though, which was a surprise to me. Pidgin, Thunderbird, Firefox and Brasero are all holdovers from the standard Gnome fare. And there are a solid number of Gnome games and so forth.
Performance is … well, I’m trying to be fair but also honest, so I’ll just spit it out: Performance is still where Xubuntu falls down for me.
For example, remember those 138 packages that needed updated? Well, that activity consumed any available memory I had, and the system became near-unresponsive until that finished. Skipping mouse pointer, lagging menus, four- and five-minute program startups, continual thrashing at the hard drive. When the screen-blanking timeout happened, a keypress could take up over a minute to bring back the desktop image. And after a while, it just never came back.
Now I know aptitude is a complete slug when compared with, for example, pacman. But at the same time, I have a 550Mhz Celeron with 192Mb running Arch, and a graphical interface for pacman will not cause a complete and utter system slowdown. Maybe I’m not taking everything into account, but I really don’t think an 800Mhz machine performing software updates should have to sit alone and devote everything it has to downloading, unpacking, setting up and configuring. That’s not very impressive.
But that’s also not Xubuntu’s fault either. Faults or deficiencies or poor performance in aptitude are upstream issues. Now, using the update manager and a heavy desktop environment and all the Gnome whirligigs running in the background … those are the fault of Xubuntu. I daresay I could have trimmed the time to update by at least an hour or so by killing X and jumping to the console, and running aptitude from the command line. And so I learned a lesson there.
Boot times (which I hold as an informal indicator of system bulk) are about where I expected them: 1 minute 7 seconds to the login manager, and another 0:45 before the desktop is in place and the drive stops spinning. I don’t get the impression that it’s paging on startup, so I assume I have an acceptable amount of memory. The numbers that are bandied about on the Ubuntu Forums suggest 256Mb is the bare minimum for Gnome or KDE Ubuntu, and 192Mb is okay for Xubuntu. That’s strictly hearsay though.
Firefox can open to the Ubuntu 8.10 start page in 25 seconds, which is a bit slow for my standards, but seems about right for a full desktop environment on this hardware. Xfce-terminal takes around 8 seconds from menu click to (non)blinking cursor. And Thunar, being incredibly lightweight when compared to Nautilus, still takes about 7 seconds to show the contents of the home directory. And all those times are from a fresh boot, so there’s no caching involved.
I’m not sure what other indicators of system performance I could offer — find an old machine of your own, install it, and see what it gives you.
As for me, I find myself at the painful position of trying to summarize my brief return to Xubuntu. I promised I would be fair and yet honest, and I hope that shows through when I say, “It’s not for me.”
It does have a lot of positive points. It’s pretty, it’s complete, it’ll find your hardware, it manages just about every facet of your computing experience for you. It has Ubuntu at its core, so you can rely on it. It has a lot of great features that weren’t available when I was using version 5.10, years ago … like login management, or automounting USB drives, or. …
But there are too many impediments for me to endorse it as a solution to older computers — and my definition of “older” is well below 800Mhz. Performance is just too weak at the desktop for me to consider it for my personal use.
The best explanation I have for that appraisal is a very short note: Way back in November 2005, when I first tried Xubuntu, I was installing it on a 233Mhz Pentium II with 128Mb. That’s two hundred and thirty-three megahertz, with one-hundred and twenty-eight megabytes. And performance was fine.
But there’s no way in the wild, wild West I’d ever consider Xubuntu 8.10 for that machine. It’s true, Xubuntu has more bells and whistles than it did three years ago, but most of those bells and whistles have come at the cost of considerable system demands. And I don’t believe a 233Mhz Pentium II could do it.
Furthermore, peformance at 800Mhz was sufficiently disappointing to rule out me using it on a Duron. It’s true, I’ll be exporting this particular machine with Xubuntu 8.10 on it, but I don’t suppose the new owner will keep Xubuntu (or Windows ME, which is the legal version for that machine), so I feel no compunction in installing it one more time. My long-ago line-in-the-sand of 1.4Ghz is still where I’d put Xubuntu, if I had to guess at a reasonable speed for using it.
No: I appreciate that some effort may have gone into lightening Xubuntu on the whole — for that, I am thankful. I’m sure there are some people who use Xubuntu regularly who will install Intrepid and say, “Wow! This is so much faster!”
But this was the first time I’d installed Xubuntu in a very long time, and it will probably be the last time I install it, for a very long time to come.